‘Live-action graphic novel’ an out-of-this-world experience

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Earthlings gathered at Zellerbach Hall on Thursday for the out-of-this-world production of “The Intergalactic Nemesis Book One: Target Earth.” Described as a “live-action graphic novel” by writer, producer and director Jason Neulander, “The Intergalactic Nemesis” plays out much like a deconstructed movie.

The performance combines elements of the graphic novel, radio drama and live theater genres to create an unfamiliar form of entertainment. Neulander sees that “Comic books are purely visual media. Radio play is a purely auditory experience; the visualizing happens in your mind. By putting the two together, we get the best of both worlds.” The isolated elements of image, narrative and sound coalesce to produce an experience somewhat similar to film — but with the fluidity of live performance.

At first, it is unclear what exactly you as the spectator are about to consume, but the audience quickly becomes wholly absorbed in the fictional narrative of an Earth threatened by the Zygonian alien invasion in the year 1933. The cast consists of three actors staged in front of a large screen on which images from the graphic novel are projected. The actors take on the roles of various characters throughout the narrative, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Molly Sloan; her assistant, Timmy Mendez; and an Indiana Jones-inspired adventurer, Ben Wilcott, who join forces to save the world.

The development of this mixed-media production began some 16 years ago as a radio play in an Austin coffee shop and through collaborations transformed into a live performance. With the help of Buzz Moran, the mastermind behind the minute-to-minute sound effects produced from everyday items, Neulander was able to give his script the cinematic quality of sound that live performances often lack. Joining forces with artist Tim Doyle, visual life was given to the script through comic-book imagery painted on backdrops. From there, Neulander and Doyle “came up with the idea to take the core story of ‘The Intergalactic Nemesis’ and turn it into a comic book series,” said Neulander.

The development from radio play to live performance — accompanied by sound effects and painted backdrop — to comic book trilogy is what makes “The Intergalactic Nemesis” all the more intriguing. Because the production has roots in a variety of artistic media, the melding of these media makes it so that no single performance is the same.

Accompanying the stage actors’ seamless transitions from one character to the next and the quickly changing projection of comic book imagery, a Foley sound artist produces original sound effects using a range of objects, from cement blocks to whistles. Sounds coincide perfectly with the actors’ performance of the narrative and the constant flow of projected images. Supplementing this synchronization of sound, story and image is the work of composer Graham Reynolds, executed by pianist Kenneth Redding Jr. The interjecting music perfectly marks the arrival of particular characters and pinnacle moments within the plot. Neulander gives the keyboardist the license to improvise. This freedom allows for “all the timing to work out perfectly every time, and the organic nature of the live theater component stays very present in large part because of the music itself,” Neulander said.

“The Intergalactic Nemesis” thrives on the coordination of isolated parts, allowing members of the audience to become acutely involved in the unfolding of the narrative as they are required to blend together these disjoined elements. “The whole experience is much greater than the sum of the simple individual parts,” Neulander said.

Unlike radio plays or comic books, the audience gains agency in being a driving force behind the narrative of the live performance. Neulander sees that “just like the difference between listening to your favorite band on an MP3 versus seeing them live, the energy of a live performance blows away the energy of a prerecorded experience. The audience and the performer have a communication going.”

His methodology has proven a success. “The Intergalactic Nemesis” has been booked to return to Zellerbach Hall in 2014 for the performance of “Book Two: Robot Planet Rising.” With a solid fan following, the third installment of the trilogy, “Book Three: Twin Infinity,” will premiere in September 2014 in Austin.

Contact Peggy Beim at [email protected].